Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Location, Location, Location—Why I Fall in Love with my Small Towns by Virgnia McCullough

I love cities. I can’t think of any city I’ve visited in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world I wouldn’t gladly explore again. I can’t get enough of the huge parks that stretch endlessly, sometimes for many miles along waterfronts or right in the middle of town. Landmarks and museums await and there’s always a surprise around the next corner. Each time I go back to Chicago, my hometown, I happily ride the subway and tramp through one of my old neighborhoods to see what’s new—and what’s not. I get that ol’ feeling walking past Wrigley Field, and I always know I’m never more than a couple of minutes away from a great cup of coffee and something luscious to go with it.

A view of Chicago from Lincoln Park

So, if I love cityscapes so much, why do I write stories set in small towns? Well, the easiest answer is that I love them, too. When I first moved away from Chicago it was to the coast of Maine, into a rental house on an island with a year-round population of around 250. The island was magical—last fall I visited friends there and it’s still just as wonderful. Over the years, I lived in many more such towns and a few smaller cities.

As sure as a story idea comes to me, the environment appears, too, fully formed. My fictional small towns, sometimes touristy places, are usually on a lake, ocean, or river. (But I’m just as happy to read stories set in mountains, deserts, and prairie towns.) Like Two Moon Bay, where GIRL IN THE SPOTLIGHT and two additional books are set, my towns are like cities in miniature. They’re my creations, so they follow my rules.

Two Moon Bay has sidewalks and bike paths, a favorite coffeehouse, and a waterfront park. In no time, I felt right at home in this place had appeared to me. My characters are a mix of longtime residents and newcomers discovering the environment for first time. They’re expandable, too, these towns I design. In GIRL IN THE SPOTLIGHT, I needed a skating rink, but in the other two books, boats and a marina play a big role. Other features, the Silver Moon Winery being one, don’t have specific parts to play, but are reliable landmarks in each story and help define the town.

The idea of creating a contemporary fictional city of several million is daunting, and using a real one requires a certain level of accuracy—a demand that can’t be ignored. (In the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” the pair supposedly left the University of Chicago to drive to New York, but every Chicagoan knew from the position of the famous Hancock building behind them, they were driving straight to Wisconsin! Did the location scouts think we wouldn’t notice?) In fictional small towns, we authors define accuracy. The street I live on in my real small town, which is essentially adjacent to Green Bay, Wisconsin, doesn’t have a sidewalk, a flaw, as far as I’m concerned. But the characters inhabiting my fictional towns, even if they’re islands, can always count on a sidewalk or footpath.  
In the small town environments we create, we often set up situations that allow readers to quickly identify who has roots in the town, shallow or deep. In some cases, we have prominent families or well-known individuals with connections to each other, not always pleasant ones. Characters may have overlapping histories, which makes it difficult to disappear without leaving town altogether. I especially like my small towns because they are both manageable and filled with possibilities. Where else but in storytelling do we have the freedom to create and define a complete environment in such detail? 

Small town characters and small town settings inspire my writing.

Some authors and readers might include the idea of small-town values, but having lived in communities of all sizes over a fairly long lifetime so far, I don’t see a difference in the values of city-dwellers and small-towners. People can be equally kind or rude, generous or greedy, loving or hateful, no matter where they live. My choice of locations is more about me than about any particular human trait. I can picture the characters in my stories getting into messes and solving their problems and going after their dreams in a lovely little town I know intimately, a place that on some level, I really do live in.  

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Virginia McCullough’s Heartwarming debut, GIRL IN THE SPOTLIGHT, is due for release in June 2017, and is Book 1 of her Two Moon Bay series. She has had a long career as a ghostwriter and nonfiction book author, and has had the privilege of living in six states and the U.S.V.I. When not writing, she can be seen walking on nearby trails—or maybe packing her car for her next road trip. Sign up for her newsletter at, www.virginiamccullough.com

19 comments:

  1. We're thrilled to have you as a member of the Heartwarming authors group, Virginia. June isn't that far away, and I look forward to your first Heartwarming release!

    I enjoy creating fictitious settings, but I have to admit that invariably elements of real place I love tend to sneak in.

    I wish you all the best with your first Heartwarming release!

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    1. Thanks--it's true we sneak in real places sometimes. Or, places like the Silver Moon Winery is very much like a real winery that has been in one of the Lake Michigan towns for decades. I have it pictured when I think of Silver Moon.

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  2. Hi Virginia! Love this post. I'm in the middle of attempting to create a fictional town and these are great things to keep in mind. Personally, I could never write realistically about city life because I've never lived in one. (I do love to visit them on occasion.) I'm sure I'd mess it up royally!

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    1. Cities are easy to mess up. I only use them once in a while myself. I think I like creating my own town best of all.

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  3. Best wishes, Virginia for your first release. I LOVE this shot of Chicago...my favorite city next to Paris and Geneva. I was just there Friday. Sigh.

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    1. I still have family in Chicago, so I get there now and again. It was such a great place to grow up and become a part of the big movements of my youth. Haven't been to Geneva, but I love Paris. In Chicago, I recall Toronto mentioned as a sister city--diverse and beautiful and on the lake.

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  4. I loved your post, Virginia! Although I've never lived in a small town, for some, reason they hold a certain mystique for me. But as you say, they are simply smaller versions of the same kinds of values, people and dreams that are found in big cities. As to Chicago....my family treated me to a 'ladies' weekend there in Sept. to celebrate a milestone birthday . Loved the city and want to go back. All the best with your new release and looking forward to it.

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    1. Lucky you on your milestone birthday. I think we all deserve a trip in a milestone year. I'm in a milestone birthday year myself and I'm heading to Scotland this summer...visiting cities, small towns, and islands. My favorite things. Thanks for your good wishes.

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  5. I love small towns, too, though I live in a city now. It's fun to create a town and its inhabitants and I'm looking forward to reading your first book for Heartwarming.

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    1. Maybe when we've in big and small and in between, we really do learn we can be happy or miserable no matter where we live. I appreciate your support for my upcoming Heartwarming release.

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  6. Like you, I love what we can do with the towns we create. I love cities, too, but never having lived in one, I'm like LeAnne--I don't think I could write realistically. I remember snickering when a heroine hailed a cab in a town so small that it probably didn't have the sidewalks you mentioned.

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    1. I still end up explaining to people who visit me that although we have cabs around here, you have to call for one. No such thing as hailing a cab. I think that many city neighborhoods have an atmosphere that in some way serves as preparation for small town living--farmer's markets, local banks, branch libraries that are a quick walk away. It's pleasant living all around.

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  7. Virginia, Two Moon Bay sounds lovely, and I'll look forward to finding out all about it in June. I grew up in a small town (actually on a farm five miles from a small town) and there is a different pace than in the city. I knew the name of everyone in my graduating class of around one hundred, while my kids were in classes five times that size. There are advantages and disadvantages, but I'll always have a soft spot for small towns.

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    1. Odd that I had a graduating class in a public school just about 125. I have too many soft spots for places I've lived--but I'm not complaining. What a blessing to love where we are.

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  8. Virginia, congrats on your upcoming release! I love the title of your series and am totally with you on small towns. I, too, have lived in big cities, such as Houston, but I've also lived in small towns (as I do now) and I'm definitely a small town girl at heart.

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    1. I enjoy hearing about the range of places my writer friend live and have lived. It seems like we all draw on these experiences. Maybe as writers we notice our surroundings and take in the details!

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  9. Wishing you the best on your first release, Virginia! I love to create fictional small town settings, particularly in the Virginia and West Virginia mountains. Although I grew up just outside of Washington DC, I'd rather live in a small town. Congratulations!

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    1. Thanks for the good wishes. I'm excited about the Two Moon Bay series. You certainly picked a gorgeous location for your small towns. I was just a couple of miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway for 8 years, and wow, what a place to gather inspiration--mountains really spark the imagination.

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  10. As a reader, and a native New Yorker who now lives in a much smaller city, I can truly appreciate and agree with what you said about people who inhabit large cities vs. small towns. People can be more rude in smaller towns, or more compassionate in larger cities. I've witnessed both. And....very interesting what you said about When Harry Met Sally. Attention to detail is so important.
    I'm looking forward to your debut Heartwarming release.

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